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The women's cycling calendar - part 3: More ideas to help races survive

I’ve been looking at the women’s cycling calendar – how the number of stage races has been dropping, and thinking about how the trend could be reversed. In Part One I did some analysis of the issues and looked at where races have been lost, and in Part Two I looked at what can be done to help get more races on television/online streaming, and improve publicity for the races.

In this part, I’ll lay out some other ideas races could be helped to survive, and new races be developed. I’m especially interested in ways all the different stakeholders can get involved – including what fans like me can do. It has been hard, watching race after race disappear from the calendar since the high point of 2008 – but by working together, we definitely can change things.

Once again, these are presented as suggestions for discussion – I’m definitely not an expert – and of course, any ideas YOU have, or reasons why my suggestions wouldn’t work, would be gratefully received in the comments.

The role of the UCI

It’s great that the UCI has formed a small working group to look at women’s racing, because there is so much potential to make a difference. Right now they are making changes in other forms of cycling that could easily be transferred to the road. From this year the season-long team competition in Mountain Biking will be judged on the scores of the top three men and top two women in the team – which lead to some teams signing up women for the first time. And more applicable to this discussion, from this year in cyclocross, any race that wants the top category status will have to put on a women’s race as well.

This is a very simple rule change that could be applied to Road Cycling – if every race that wanted to be part of the World Tour had a women’s race, we could have a sustainable calendar in no time. One of the issues of the women’s calendar has been that not only have stage races disappeared, but we’ve also lost significantly more stage races and climbing races. If we could use the parcours of World Tour races, this would bring more diversity to the calendar.

Now, I know this may seem an extreme solution, and some races would resist it, but there are some excellent examples which show how it could be possible. There are already different models – the Tour of Qatar and GP de Plouay run their women’s races on different days to their men’s; in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the women start earlier and race a partially different course; and in the Flèche Wallonne, the women start earlier, missing out the first "warm-up" part of the men’s race, but ride almost the same race from Huy. And if Flèche Wallonne can coordinate five passes of the Mur by pelotons, other races will be able to find solutions. In stage races, women could start earlier or later than the men, on part of the same course – if not for the whole race, then for a week or so.

Or maybe men’s races could ally with existing races – the Giro and the Giro Donne, for example - and help with the promotion and sponsor issues, so even if new races weren’t created, existing races could be safeguarded.
It wouldn’t just help the women’s races. Sparkassen Giro is a good example of how having women’s races alongside men’s can benefit everything. It’s run as part of a weekend festival of racing, with all kinds of races – including ones for tiny children. Last year’s race was in a downpour – but the photos of little kids on their baby bikes, with their parents grinning and running alongside them, was lovely. Plouay does the same thing, having a whole festival of cycling with all kinds of fun things to do (see Monty's preview from last year!). Events like this can do so much to promote healthy living and tourism – and by giving kids of all ages an opportunity to ride alongside superstars, can do so much to inspire the next generations of riders.

Until the UCI is ready to implement mandatory women’s races, there are plenty of other things they could do to help races survive, and new races develop. As the organisation that grants status to races, these next ideas are perfect for them.

Calendar coordination

The fact races overlap wasn’t so much of an issue in, eg, 1998, when there were more UCI-ranked stage racing days than there will be ANY kind of UCI-ranked racing days this year – but now we have such big holes in the calendar (only 8 UCI racing days in August and 14 in May) this is something that should be addressed.

Gracia-Orlova is a race with challenging parcours – but opposite the Luxembourg races, it can’t attract a huge field. Holland Hills is a lovely race - four times over the Cauberg! The nearest equivalent to a women’s Amstel Gold! In Valkenberg, site of the 2012 Road World Cup! But it moved from a weekend last where last year it clashed with the Route de France, Sparkassen Giro and the Junior Worlds to running on the same day as the first World Cup of the season, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda - and of course, that's the BIG day race competition of the season.

The UCI is in the perfect position to look at races, broker deals and help them to spread more evenly around the calendar. Races may need to compromise on this, but new races should also be aware of the impact they have on the precarious calendar.

Sharing best practice

Yes, I know, that sounds like corporate jargon, but this is another proactive way the UCI could make a difference.

While there have been big losses from the women’s calendar, other races have either demonstrated long-term sustainability, or have developed in really interesting and innovative ways.

The Luxembourg races started in 2008 with GP Elsy Jacobs, and have expanded to 2 UCI 1.1 day races, a night-time team time trial and a day of mass-participation rides. They attract an elite field, with teams appreciating the opportunity to ride multiple races, great organisation, nice accommodation, etc. As well as getting sponorship for the overall race, they also secured sponsors to cover the costs of each team’s accommodation (see their start list) giving lots of smaller sponsors a named role. And by using the race to celebrate the first ever women’s road race World Champion, they have a great "hook" to publicising the race.

This is just one example – as I mentioned previously, the Energiewacht Tour secured tv/video shown online in their first year. And races like the Giro Donne – and of course, the men’s races – have a wealth of experience. The UCI could identify race organisers with strengths, and see if they could provide support and advice to struggling/developing races.

The role of National Federations

Another thing the UCI could do is broker support from National Federations, where races have difficulties with the relationship. And National Federations could be targeted where there are particular problems. There is an issue with some well-developed cycling nations, with well-resourced Federations, not having any UCI-ranked races. In Australia, for example, there are a number of existing races that might be targeted to upgrade. And as I mentioned in Part 1, in the period I analysed, 2006-11, there have been NO UCI-ranked women’s races in the UK.

This could help the issue of geography. The Belgian Lotto Cycling Cup races upgraded to UCI 1.2 this year, and new races develop in the Netherlands, but they can only work with available geography, so can’t develop, eg, stage races for climbers. Countries like the UK have some amazing geography, so could be targeted to help develop iconic climbers’ races.

Now, since I’ve started this series, people on twitter have suggested that races could never start in the UK, because of the cost of policing. I raise my eyebrows at the idea that the UK is so much more expensive than the other European countries, the USA etc, especially looking at how the city I live in is happy to close down roads for half-marathons, festivals and free-to-enter mass participation ride, but even if it is the case, I have a solution!

Combine races with existing events

If one of the reasons roads can been closed for, eg, a half-marathon is the cost, how about tying a women’s race into an existing event? So British Cycling could approach, eg, Bristol’s Biggest Bike Ride (to use a very local example), or one of the big sportives, and support them to add a women’s race. If BC can put their backing behind the SkyRides, why not a women’s road race? And if Sky won’t back a women’s team, they can show their commitment to professional women’s cycling by supporting a race – the Beryl Burton Stage Race, for example. I’m mentioning British Cycling, because I know about their structure etc, but I’m sure other Federations could do the same.

Teams setting up their own race series

Remember when Jonathan Vaughters and Johann Bruyneel wanted to set up their own league of races? How about the big teams get together and do that for the women’s races instead? I can definitely see a role for, eg HTC, AA and Nederland Bloeit to get together and use their contacts to see if they can set up a mini-league of races, with each team using their contacts to get sponsorship for a race.

A series of races that were part of an international competition (and again, it could be existing races, or tied into existing events) would generate superb publicity! And if the UCI won't do help, there's always the option of following the Women's Tennis Association route, and stepping outside the UCI structures...

The cycling media – and another role for races and teams

Of course, the cycling media has a role to play as well. I’d love it if every time the big media interviewed the ASO about Paris-Roubaix or the TdF, they added a question about when will there be a women’s race. Given the parlous state of the women’s calendar, this could be something where a dedicated campaign could really make an active difference.

Just making a commitment to promote the existing women’s races a bit more could change the way the sport is perceived – and of course, if that brings in a new audience, it opens new markets. I’ve always said if our own Monty, or Gwéna on La Blog de Gwéna can manage to write such interesting race previews, in their free time, among whatever else they have going on, the cycling media can dedicate resources to it!

And races and teams could do more to help too. We know the big cycling media will use press releases, so make it easy for them! Maybe races could expand their press releases outside their usual zones, and in different languages. I mentioned this in part two, but volunteers could translate press releases into different languages. Wielerland provides excellent coverage of women’s races (I especially appreciate the links they’re adding these days to race video in their mini-reports) but there are all kinds of things I see on Wielerland that don’t make it onto the English-speaking websites, and I wonder if that’s because some Dutch teams feel they don’t need to promote beyond the Dutch-speaking media. And yes, I know, it’s probably even less likely that English-speaking races and teams promote in Dutch – but more publicity benefits everyone!

How can fans help?

The fact we’re all on Podium Café shows we’re computer literate, and I’m sure most of us could make a tiny bit of time to get involved. Just showing that we would be interested in seeing more women’s racing is a start. I’ve talked for ages about how I’d LOVE to see a women’s Paris-Roubaix, so this year I am committing to emailing the ASO and asking them if they have plans for one. Actions like this don’t take much time, but if people ask questions – of race organisers, of teams, Federations and the UCI – then it will at least show there’s an interest (I did email both the UCI and British Cycling some questions, while I was putting this article together, but neither organisation replied. That’s a little bit depressing, but hopefully they’ll at least have logged the queries!)

These are some thoughts – and I know, we can’t expect change overnight. But as I explained in my first post, we are in a situation where radical solutions and major change is needed, if the sport is to survive.

If you have any ideas that you think could make a difference, or any questions, please do add them below. Even just talking about it could make a difference – and at least it shows we care!